The tour of Australia was widely regarded as the acid test to measure Pakistan’s new found confidence in Test cricket. Indeed, to many who saw the mercurial side’s performance against the much-fancied England side last summer, the manner of Pakistan’s resistance to draw the four-match Test series pointed to a new found inner strength which should have held them in good stead on their trip Down Under.
The disastrous whitewash against New Zealand prior to the Australia visit was put down to a lack of preparation and many were hoping for a miraculous turnaround once Misbah-ul-Haq’s men took on a newly energised home-side led by Steve Smith.
Pakistan, although demoralised by the drubbing received in New Zealand, had a faint glimmer of hope in the shape of an Australian team which had suffered a rare home defeat at the hands of South Africa. Could Pakistan cash in on the Australian team’s perceived dip in morale to create history with a series win of their own?
The first Test in Brisbane, played under lights and with a pink ball, was therefore crucial to the visiting sides overall success in the series. A short three-Test series needed a good start as room for error was much more limited. Misbah and his men had to make this Test count and for that they desperately needed to win the toss and put up a big total. Pakistan’s fortunes took a dip from day one of the series as they lost the toss and were put into field by Australia.
The much-vaunted Pakistan pace attack looked toothless from Day One of the series and when combined with some hopeless fielding, the result was a massive first innings total of 429 for the home-side which seemed to send an alarming signal of supremacy. Pakistan’s woes were just beginning to manifest themselves and worst was to follow.
Reduced to 6/56 in no time by Messeurs Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird, Pakistan crept up to 142 all out, handing a massive advantage to an Australian side which was now brimming with confidence. Centuries by captain Smith and newbie Peter Handscomb were danger signs for Pakistan, which they would have done well to pay heed to. The match would have ended in complete ignominy for Pakistan had it not been for an extraordinary rearguard action by the likes of Asad Shafiq (137) and Azhar Ali (71) ably supported by Mohammad Amir (48), which almost gave them a taste of victory on the last day of the game.
The 39-run margin of defeat was as close as what Pakistan would come to beating Australia on this tour. A victory, unlikely as it may have been, could have changed the series but was not to be. Both teams went into the second Test in Melbourne with their heads held high. Australia were one up in the series but Pakistan were in possession of moral high ground which was a position they could have capitalised on to their advantage in Melbourne.
And for most of the first innings in Melbourne, it did appear to be the case. Azhar played a supremely confident 205 not out to help Pakistan to 443 and his team looked in good nick until Australia batted in reply. Pakistan’s toothless bowling displays then took a life of their own as David Warner (144) and Steve Smith (165) smashed their way to put Australia (624) right on top. It was then when the wheels truly came off the Pakistan wagon. In a return to the dark days of old when batting collapses were customary, the visitors were bowled out for 163 on Day 5 to hand Australia the match and the series on a platter. Josh Hazlewood and Mitch Starc wreaked havoc on a batting side which only a few days ago, was looking to be back at its best. The innings defeat in the second Test seemed to knock the stuffing out of captain Misbah’s unflappable composure and the talk of him retiring and not playing the final Test was rife amongst fans and experts.
Whether better sense prevailed or PCB stepped into give Misbah some food for thought, the embattled Pakistan captain “restated” his position about retirement and walked on to the Sydney Cricket Ground to lead his team for what would surely be the last time in Australia.
The Australians duly won the toss and decided to bat first. Warner’s mesmerising control over the Pakistani bowlers was on display from Day 1 of this game as he became only the fifth batsman to score a Test hundred before lunch. Renshaw and Handscomb, who continued to repay the faith put in them by Australian selectors, then fired their side to what appeared to be an impregnable position with fantastic hundreds.
Renshaw, in particular, came close to a double-hundred, and his future with the Test squad looks very bright. The Australian selectors can rightly pat themselves on the back for taking some bold decisions to redesign their team in response to a drubbing from the South Africans before Pakistan’s arrival. The Misbah-led side offered some brave resistance in the final Test but the inability to bat through cost Pakistan yet another defeat as was clearly visible in the final innings of the series.
A three-nil margin of defeat may be a difficult pill to swallow for Pakistan fans but the fair-minded would agree that Australia deserved to take these laurels due to completely outclassing Pakistan in most sessions of the three Test matches.
Pakistan knew well that the tour of Australia would be a tough one. Misbah’s attempt to create history with a series victory was found lacking in many key aspects. Whilst the batsmen did not rise to the occasion, the fact is that no batting line-up would be able to win matches if their bowling colleagues were conceding scores of 400-plus on a regular basis or were unable to take twenty wickets in any of the matches in the series. In fact, the Pakistani attack were only able to take thirty-three wickets of the sixty possible and that in itself speaks volumes about their impotence in Australian conditions. Of course, their fielding was also guilty of sloppiness, with dropped catches also a major reason for the lopsided series score line.
On the positive side, Pakistan for once, gave a good account of themselves with the bat with two scores around the 450 mark, which sadly was interspersed with two collapses before and after those good displays. The batsmen, led by Azhar, did well to ensure that Australia did not win the series without some serious effort with the ball, being made to bowl 145 and 126 overs at the Gabba and the MCG respectively. Azhar along the way became the highest scorer for Pakistan in a Test series in Australia, and Younis Khan finally came to the party with a near double-hundred in Sydney which gave him the unique distinction of becoming the first-ever batsman to hit a Test hundred in eleven different countries.
For Australia, the only way is up. As illustrated by the fine form of Smith and the remainder of the batting order, the home-side has a bunch of players who can take on any bowling attack in the world. Australia's batsmen, specially the top five, all flourished at different points in the series with the Pakistan bowlers struggling throughout. Renshaw started with a fifty at the Gabba and then went on to hit a daddy hundred, 184, at the SCG, a superb knock for such a young opener. Apart from the raw game-changing power provided by Warner, Australia were also well served by Usman Khawaja who played a good hand at the Gabba as Australia pushed for a declaration. Amongst the young guns, Peter Handscomb’s two centuries earned plaudits from one and all and he looks set for a bright Test career.
In the skills of Starc (14 wickets) and Hazlewood (15 wickets) Australia know that they have the firepower to blow away any level of opposition. Bird too proved to be a handful for the Pakistani batting order as his fuller length combined with a bit of movement off the seam troubled the batsmen, particularly Misbah — who he dismissed three times in the two Tests he played. He was a good foil to the two strike bowlers, backing them up well and taking 10 wickets in his two appearances. The spin department was well served by Nathan Lyon, though he was under-bowled a touch, with Smith seemingly not trusting the off-spinner. It was Lyon however, who triggered the collapse at the MCG after Azhar and Younis had put on a decent partnership on Day 5.
Misbah will leave Australian shores knowing fully well that he may well have missed a great opportunity to write a golden chapter in the history of Pakistan cricket. The Sydney loss was the sixth Test loss in a row under his command and also added to the ignominy of being the 12th consecutive loss in Australia overall. There has been a lot of criticism about his tactics and also his poor batting form, but the absence of Amir’s skills — which once made him a candidate for attaining Wasim Akram’s stature — or the absolute lack of penetration by Yasir Shah did not help either. Misbah's reign as Test captain appears all but over, but what will really worry the Pakistan think tank will be the manner in which their bowling attack has come apart in this series.
Whether this is a temporary glitch or not, dark days lie ahead for Pakistan; their fans will be well advised to cling on to memories of their captain holding the world No 1 Test ranking mace, as a solution to their immediate problems does not appear to be forthcoming very soon.